Moral Low Ground

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VA Suicide Prevention Hotline Callers Transferred to Voicemail

February 19, 2016 by Brett Wilkins in US Military & Veterans with 0 Comments

Staffers at the Veterans Crisis Line. (Photo: Department of Veterans Affairs)

At least 23 veterans, active duty troops or family members who called a suicide crisis hotline operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs were transferred to voicemail, their calls never returned.

Military Times reports these disturbing findings were detailed in a Veterans Affairs Department Inspector General report released earlier this week. According to the report, the VA watchdog also found that the crisis centers responsible for the voicemail errors were independent contractors hired by the agency to provide backup services at times when the Veterans Crisis Line was experiencing heavy call volume, and that the contractors may not have provided adequate training for their counselors who helped veterans, troops and relatives experiencing mental health crises. The report also found that an ambulance called to assist a veteran “did not arrive for three hours.”

The Veterans Crisis Line, which was the subject of the Academy Award-winning HBO short documentary film Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (watch trailer), received more than 450,000 calls in 2014, marking a 40 percent increase over the previous year, CBS News reports. About one out of every six of those calls were redirected to contractor-run backup centers due to heavy call volume. According to the report, hotline callers “made numerous complaints of long wait times for responders, being put ‘on hold’ or calls ‘not being put through’ to a responder.”

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called the report “shameful” and “unacceptable.”

“The VA’s failure to help our most vulnerable veterans is not only unacceptable, but it is shameful,” McCain said, according to the Associated Press. “The VA’s inability to run a call center and deal with increasing demand has put our nation’s veterans at greater risk.”

The VA Inspector General’s office has recommended numerous changes to ensure that veterans receive better service when they call the crisis hotline, including:

  • Resolving all problems related to calls routed to the backup centers.
  • Improving tracking of calls at the backup centers.
  • Establishing a quality assurance process for both the Veterans Crisis Line and the backup centers.
  • Ensuring that contracts with the backup centers set expectations.

VA officials agreed with the recommendations and said they would implement them by the end of September. A VA spokeswoman also told Military Times that a number of changes are already underway to ensure that crisis hotline callers are never placed on hold. The VA has also hired additional staff to work the hotline during peak hours and has upgraded its telephone and technology systems to improve service.

“We are improving our ability to be more available when our veterans need help the most,” Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement.

Despite the troubling problems detailed in the VA report, the Veterans Crisis Line, which has fielded more than two million calls since it was launched in 2007, is credited with saving more than 50,000 lives, according to its website.

About 20 percent of US suicides are committed by veterans. According to a 2012 VA report, an estimated 22 veterans kill themselves every day, and among deployed and non-deployed active duty veterans who served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars between 2001 and 2007, the rate of suicide was highest the first three years after leaving service.

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